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On October 23, the gym at Portland High School should have been thumping to the Afro-Cuban beat of the Ballet Folklorico Cutumba, a world-renowned dance troupe booked by the Center for Cultural Exchange (CCE). Unfortunately, after months of throwing punches at the bureaucratic tar baby we know as the Department of Homeland Security, Cutumba found themselves thoroughly stuck back home in Santiago de Cuba. The story, as CCEís Ryan McMaken tells it, goes like this:
Shortly before the tour was to begin, the Department of Homeland Security granted Cutumbaís visas, but then denied the group permission to enter the country until each member had undergone an FBI background check. Those checks came up clean, and then, for reasons known only to them, Homeland Security dragged its feet until well after Cutumbaís first scheduled performances in New York, forcing Cutumba to cancel the entire tour.
And this with not one but two United States Senators calling Washington to get things moving. Mary Farel, administrative director of the Center for Creative Education in Stony Ridge, New York, worked on booking Cutumba. "Everything should have been okay," she says, "because all the paperwork was in place way before it had to be." It wasnít, though, and the CCEís co-Director James Bau Graves estimates the lost revenue from the cancellation at $10,000, plus the money they spent on publicity.
Cutumba isnít the only Cuban group running afoul of newly stringent immigration policy. Barbarito Torres, of Buena Vista Social Club fame, was recently prevented from entering the country for gigs at ó among other places ó the Lincoln Center and Rockland. Hillary Clinton herself lobbied to get him across the border, but even the former First Ladyís considerable skills of persuasion had no effect on Homeland Security. The list of Cuban musicians turned back at the border encompasses both the famous and the niche performers: Legendary Cuban pianist Chucho Valdez couldnít get a visa last fall to pick up his Latin Grammy, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars had to cancel a national tour in the summer of 2002, and the Grupo Vocal Desandan were forced to cancel a date at the CCE six months ago.
"All of these groups have toured the US successfully multiple times in the past," Graves points out. "It has nothing to do with national security."
A reasonable person might wonder whether tours by a Cuban dance troupe or a 62-year-old jazz pianist are really going to strengthen Fidel Castroís regime and threaten democratic ideals, or aid terrorists based in Cuba (or something), but thereís nothing reasonable about Homeland Security policies in this area.
Even as the Senate proposes lifting travel sanctions and the House drops funding for prosecutions of people who travel to Cuba illegally, Bush administration officials try to ratchet up sanctions on Cuba, and itís impossible not to conclude that the Department of Homeland Security has been made into a vehicle for a peculiar political vendetta, squeezing artists because Republicans need the votes of Cuban expatriates in Florida to carry the battleground state.
Is this what national security should be about?
You donít have to be Cuban to run into visa trouble (although it helps); Cuba is just one of seven nations on a State Department list of terrorism sponsors whose citizens are presumptively inadmissible to the US and have to get that inadmissibility waived on a case-by-case basis. The other six include Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea, and the Sudan ó but thereís a second list of 26 other countries whose citizens must undergo more intense scrutiny (including a 20-day waiting period, which is a farcical notion when you consider that visa applications operate on a completely unpredictable schedule to begin with) before entering the US. The State Department has so far refused to release this list, but arts organizations across the country uniformly have more trouble getting people in from countries with large populations of Muslims.
Phyllis OíNeil, executive director of the CCE, recalls an incident in which Shego Band, a group of Somali musicians from Toronto (who tour with two Americans, but more about that later), tried to cross into Maine for a show. "The only way they got in," she says, "is by convincing the border guard to call me at 11 oíclock at night, at home, so I could confirm that they were scheduled to perform here."
If you take it on faith that Somalia is a hotbed of terrorists, it might make some sense to take a closer look at a group of Somalis coming across the border, but the members of Shego Band have lived in Toronto for years ó some of them are Canadian citizens ó and theyíve come to the US several times without incident.
And, surely, the national-security concerns involving Canadian Celtic-bluegrass guitarists are less pressing.
J.P. Cormier has enjoyed a 20-year professional career in the United States and Canada. After 10 years living in Alabama and Tennessee, he moved back home to Nova Scotia a few years ago and began to seriously acquaint himself with the intricacies of the visa process. In September of this year, he set off for the border to begin a tour that was to include three stops in Maine: at the Center for Cultural Exchange, Harvey Reidís Seacoast Guitar series in York, and the Apple Acres Bluegrass Gathering in Hiram. When he got to the border, though, he found that, despite the value the State Department places on background checks, in most cases the past doesnít matter when youíre trying to enter the States.
Cormierís booking agent, Christine Buiteman of Flash Publishing and Entertainment in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, blames Cormierís problem on herself because when she filled out the visa application, she included only Cormier and not his wife and fellow musician Hilda Chiasson, who tours with him. Still, she says, "they had a file on J.P. an inch thick, with all his comings and goings . . . the people at the border knew them and still couldnít let them across."
Picking up the story, Cormier says, "Iíve been going across that same border crossing [at Calais] for 22 years" without a problem. In the two weeks following 9/11, he lost more than $15,000 in performance fees ó including a gig at Lincoln Center ó because nobody could get across the border. But that was different. Now, two years on, the border-crossing process is permanently changed, and Cormier isnít shy about his feeling that the change isnít for the better.
"I feel really bad for [the border guards]," he says. "Theyíre put in a situation where theyíre a SWAT team instead of doing what theyíre supposed to do. You go there now and you can just see the fear in their eyes."
He recounts a story of a border guard, whom heíd known for years, opening Cormierís briefcase with a pole as if, after two decades, Cormier had abruptly decided to smuggle a bomb into Maine.
"Theyíre terrified," he says. "Itís like looking at people whoíve been sentenced to death."
Many of the guards Cormier has known during his years of border-crossing have been replaced by personnel with more extensive firearms training, and even those of his old acquaintances still working the Calais checkpoint this past September couldnít let him through under the new circumstances. Cormier lost, he estimates, six or seven thousand dollars from canceled shows up and down the East Coast, "and you donít just lose the immediate paycheck. You lose every single gig you would have gotten from playing that gig."
On the visa-application process, Buiteman pulls no punches. "Itís extremely arduous," she says, and applications "have to be done unreasonably far ahead of time." Homeland Security, she says, wants to know everywhere a visa applicant is going to be three months ahead of time ó well before most touring musicians have contracts in hand.
When you talk to Cormier about the visa situation, heís even more direct than his agent. "George Bush has totally destroyed the process," he says. "It takes months to get the papers, and if you want it faster, you have to pay $1000 US" for expedited processing.
The CCEís Graves agrees, and points out that while a thousand bucks "is no problem if youíre the Rolling Stones, if youíre a fado guitarist from Portugal ó coming over to play five shows and go home with $500 in your pocket if youíre lucky ó $1000 is prohibitive." If you donít come up with the thousand, you can find your application going wrong for all kinds or reasons; Graves remembers once having to get Tom Allenís office involved in a visa wrangle because the CCE had inadvertently sent along an application fee that was five dollars too high, and the State Department returned the application unprocessed.
(Oddly, heís not alone in this; the Los Angeles Times of July 22, 2002, quotes Walter Nick Durkacz, a festival director from New York City, as saying the same thing happened to him. Durkacz also claims to have had an application come back because he signed in the wrong color ink.)
The performerís visa Cormier uses, called a P-2, allows a foreign artist to be in the United States for up to one year, as long as he or she has a scheduled gig every 30 days. The P-2 classification is for artists who travel as part of a cultural exchange program. It costs $130, and if youíre a member of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), theyíll do the paperwork for you, but you still have to wait while all of the security checks are done, even if youíve crossed into the country before and none of your information has changed.
"I apply [for a P-2] two or three times a year," Cormier says. "Iíve got no criminal record, nothingís changed, and still they run through the same check. Itís a gigantic, colossal waste of everybodyís tax dollars, ours and the USís."
Amy Otten, spokesperson for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau of Homeland Security, bristles at Cormierís characterization. "I think we would see it as protecting the homeland," she says. Asked if thereís any way to streamline the process to make it less burdensome on applicants, she says no. "Thatís just not the tenor of the times."
In the US, anyway. Whatís it like going back to Canada?
"Itís never changed," Cormier says.
Buiteman amplifies the point. "Thereís no other border in the world where you have to deal with these kinds of things, especially as a neighboring ally country," she says. In Europe, for example, visa requirements are waived for artists entering for limited times and specific purposes, a single festival, for example. Performers entering the US have to get a P-2 (or a P-1, or an H1B, or one of the three or four other visa classifications that allow temporary nonagricultural work in the US) no matter how many performances theyíre planning to give.
Bill Johnson Jr. of the Ossipee Valley Bluegrass Association, which puts together three festivals every year (including the New England Flatpicking and Banjo Championships every July), was nearly burned by Cormierís border misadventure.
"We didnít find out until the day before [the Apple Acres Bluegrass Gathering]," he says. "He actually called me from the border," sending Johnson off on his own series of frantic phone calls until he could line up a replacement. The situation ended up being "a big pain in the ass," but he found replacements and the show went off in front of a crowd Johnson characterizes as "disappointed but understanding."
The larger problem of new application strictures and fees, as Johnson sees it, is that they tend to "cut off a lot of the fringe performers," the guys who spend their lives on the road. "A lot of the bands tell us that theyíre not going to come down any more," he says, referring to Canadian performers such as the Juno Award-winning folksinger David Francey, who recently canceled an American tour. Those north-of-the-border groups that still come down are asking for more money to offset the hassle; the Bluegrass Diamonds recently doubled their fee, and Cape Breton fiddler Jennifer Roland increased hers by $500.
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Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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